It will likely be Palo Alto's most disruptive infrastructure project in generations and potentially its most controversial.
As Palo Alto moves ahead with its effort to separate the railroad tracks from local streets at the city's four rail intersections, City Council members agreed Tuesday that the public needs to be fully engaged from the beginning of the journey to the end.
"We're going to talk about disrupting Alma Street for two years or more," Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said. "We're going to be talking about asking people if they would mind leaving their homes. We're really embarking on an incredible process."
While her colleagues concurred, there was less consensus on the optimal path toward consensus on what's known as "grade separations" the design in which railroad tracks and streets no longer intersect. To date, the most popular solution under consideration has been constructing a trench for the rail system.
Even though the council ultimately voted Tuesday night to approve a plan for engaging residents in the process of planning for grade separations, some members of the council and the community warned that this plan falls short of what's required.
The approach the council approved by a 7-2 vote, with Councilwomen Karen Holman and Lydia Kou dissenting, includes focus groups, community workshops, online surveys, website updates, email newsletters, a technical advisory committee composed of rail experts and city staff, and public hearings in front of the Planning and Transportation Commission, the council's Rail Committee and the full City Council.
In addition, the council favored making the Rail Committee discussions more interactive so that members of the public would be welcome to attend and offer their thoughts. If the process goes as planned, it would result in the city's adoption of a preferred design alternative for grade separations by March.
Mayor Greg Scharff, who made the motion to approve the process proposed by City Manager James Keene and city planning staff, said the goal is to get people engaged early so that "they don't suddenly wake up one day, after we go through a long community-engagement process, and say, 'Wait. You're taking my house?'"
Some council members argued that the approved process doesn't go far enough in achieving that goal. They focused not on what's in the plan but on what isn't: namely, a stakeholders' group featuring both technical experts and Palo Alto residents. Some community members, including founders of the rail watchdog group Californians Advocating Responsible Rail Design (CARRD) and former Mayor Pat Burt, emphasized the importance of appointing a diverse stakeholders' group that would help guide the design process. The council opted to leave out such a group.
Burt and CARRD co-founder Nadia Naik argued that by omitting the stakeholders' group, the city is effectively straying from the design process known as "Context Sensitive Solution" (CSS), which council members had previously pledged to follow. The process, which was used by the U.S. Department of Transportation to design the nation's highways, emphasizes a "collaborative, interdisciplinary approach that involves all stakeholders to develop a transportation facility that fits its physical setting," according to a department definition.
Palo Alto Chief Transportation Official Joshuah Mello said that under this approach, it's the community that drives the decision-making process. However, he disputed the notion that this necessitates a stakeholders' group, a position with which the council majority agreed.
But Naik, whose watchdog group has staunchly advocated for the community-driven process, said a stakeholders' group that includes laymen and technical experts on the same panel was exactly what made CARRD such a proponent of the context-sensitive approach. Given the council's decision not to form the group, Naik asked council members to stop using the term "CSS" altogether.
"This is the difference between butter and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter -- and people can tell the difference," Naik said.
Burt, former chair of the Rail Committee, wrote in a guest opinion this week that the approach offered by staff "heists the term 'CSS' to describe a hollowed-up process that lacks the backbone of the empowered multi-stakeholder group." It's critical, Burt argued, to have both broad public engagement and a stakeholder group that can delve deeper into the technical issues involving the rail corridor.
Councilman Tom DuBois, who chairs the council's Rail Committee, made a motion to create the stakeholders' group, but his proposal failed by a 3-6 vote, with only Councilwomen Karen Holman and Lydia Kou joining him.
Grade separations, DuBois said, will affect the community in a much bigger way than the construction of Oregon Expressway a half-century ago. The council, he said, should not go forward with what he characterized a "primarily staff-driven process."
"I'm already hearing concerns from the community about process," DuBois said. "I worry if we continue in this way, it's going to blow up on us."
Scharff disagreed and argued that a process in which the council's Rail Committee invites the broader public to attend the meetings and weigh in on the issue does more to foster community engagement than a "small stakeholder group."
"By coming to us as decision makers, you'll have more of an impact than you would speaking to a small stakeholder group and making those points," Scharff said.